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Migrants from Europe find plenty of jobs in Latin America, but bureaucracy stymies

SANTIAGO, Chile - Geologist David Rodriguez and actress Cristina Pascual, two of the nearly six million Spaniards left jobless in the European recession, fled to Latin America last year, figuring their futures would be brighter in the booming economies on this side of the Atlantic.

Instead, they found themselves stuck, facing so many bureaucratic hurdles that their only option was to work illegally, for much lower wages. Without a work visa, they couldn't get a formal job. Without a job offer, no visa. And without a job and a visa, they had no way of securing an all-important tax-identification number, freezing them out of Chile's booming formal economy. Trying to bend the rules can result in deportation for the worker, and fines for the company.

Rodriguez and Pascual are among the many migrants watching this weekend as leaders from the European Union, Latin America and the Caribbean seek ways of eliminating the red tape that has made it so difficult for foreigners to bring their skills across borders.

The vast majority of migrants between the continents used to travel to Europe, but the trends flipped after 2010, when economic indicators began to improve in Spain and Portugal's former colonies. Now Spanish and Portuguese workers are arriving by the thousands each year, entering on tourist visas and job-hunting in Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Argentina. Spanish migrants with skills needed in the mining industry are particularly sought after in Chile.

But the bureaucracy is getting in the way.

Rodriguez, 32, graduated from college in Spain in 2010, and spent the next 28 months in a frustrating search for work in his field while he lived with his parents. Then a friend, architect Maria Moreira, posted a Facebook message saying she was migrating to Chile. He jumped at the chance to come along, but soon found himself stuck without authorization to work. Despite high demand for exactly the skills he could offer, it took four months of rejections before he found a low-paid internship that eventually led to a company's sponsorship for his paperwork.

Spain's national statistics service said more than 40,000 Spaniards abandoned the country in search of work during the first six months of last year, up sharply from the 28,000 during the same period in 2011. The same agency said this week that unemployment has reached a record 26 per cent in Spain.

Reducing roadblocks is urgent for the leaders at this summit. The IMF forecasts the Latin American and Caribbean economies to grow 3.6 per cent this year even as Europe retreats 0.2 per cent. The continents' economies are inexorably tied to each other, with EU countries representing 43 per cent of Latin America's international trade. Making it easier for workers to move to where the jobs are can help all these countries, in part by increasing the remittances people send home to their families.

Chile isn't unique in the demands it places on foreign workers. Brazil and Argentina are famous for their red tape, and lacking EU citizenship, many Latin Americans haven't been welcomed into Europe's job market, either.

The summit agenda includes fostering "best practices" for lowering barriers to work. One example: representatives of 400 universities on both sides of the Atlantic met in Santiago this week to create a "common space for higher education," with the goal of standardizing the degrees and certifications awarded throughout both regions.

The agenda also advocates equal treatment for citizens of all nations, a sore point in the former colonies of Europe. While EU citizens can enter any country in the region on tourist visas, Latin Americans have been humiliated in Europe's airports, interrogated and sent home even though they said they complied with the entry rules.

"Welcome to a better world," is how Chile's President Sebastian Pinera greeted his Spanish counterpart Mariano Rajoy, a tongue-in-cheek phrase that resonates on all sorts of levels for travellers between both regions.

Rodriguez and Pascual can testify that their welcome was difficult at best during their first months in Chile.

Without formal work and a visa, they couldn't get the Chilean identity numbers known as RUTs, which are vital for all aspects of life. Without a RUT, you can't get a telephone line, buy a cellphone, obtain a credit card, open a bank account, or make hundreds of other transactions in Chile.

Pascual, a 38-year-old actress, spent five months in low-paid, under-the-table jobs before she got help from the Spanish embassy, where she now works as a cultural representative.

"The bureaucracy here is terrible," Pascual says. But now she sounds contented, and spends much of her time supporting other Spaniards who keep arriving in Chile. "Many people are coming, so we help them a little, because it's very bureaucratic here, very complicated, and they get desperate."

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